This is a cliche story, you've been alerted. It's a small story of existential angst, a mountain out of a molehill.
We have pet snails. I'd say my daughter has pet snails but my rules say that whomever does the cleaning also gets to claim parents pride. Yes, I do the cleaning of the snails just as I used to clean up after all the family dogs and then graduated into the diaper czar for my own kids. I could probably write some Freudian thesis about why I end up cleaning up shit/abhor shit but that's for another day. Today's story is about life and purpose, not shit.
Our household awoke simply, nothing awry other than my stuffed up left nostril. I laid up longer than usual avoiding acknowledgement of the days tasks. Prone, CNN in the background, I read some pages in a book about artists as art, not their actual art as their art. It is a slow book with mildly entertaining but mostly selfish ideas. And so the procrastination ran its course and I brewed some espresso. There was work to be done.
The aquarium sooted and slimed up from weeks of snails snailing lurked in my daughter's room. It took me a long time to cross the room and approach my duty. The espresso had not quite done it's own work and my eyes hadn't yet come online - a blur of fatherly motion. In the kitchen, clean soil obtained from storage, I unhinged the snail habitats lid. Lots of little globules threatened my morning. And then life hit me in the face doing what espresso couldn't - a revelation.
"GUYS GET IN HERE! GET YOUR MOTHER!"
Various feet made their way to the kitchen with slightly frightened looks draping their faces.
"WE HAVE SNAIL BABIES! LOTS OF THEM," horrification gasped out of me.
Cute little creatures, shells barely solidified, roamed the vast landscape of their birth. The strategy of their lives unfurled - a strategy of quantity and swiftness. In an unimaginably short time we went from having 3 lethargic adult snails binge watching lettuce wilt to having a hundreds strong legion of translucent, vibrant survivalists.
[The strategy is beautiful. In the darkness of night when your parents are asleep not paying attention hatch as many youngbloods as possible and let them scatter as they form households around their bodies.
The strategy is also sad, in a way. It is a strategy the assumes death. The strategy was not chosen but it was selected for snails by the consequences of the natural world over time. It's a confusing, and not human-like, strategy for species survival where the species, the colony and the individual are in a very different dance than humanity's. The strategy is very successful - land snails have been figuring out the world for over 350 million years, sea snails for much longer. So many things about snails are terribly clever and interesting and gorgeous and affirming.
see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10074/ : "First, the cleavage planes are not parallel or perpendicular to the animal-vegetal axis of the egg; rather, cleavage is at oblique angles, forming a “spiral” arrangement of daughter blastomeres. Second, the cells touch one another at more places than do those of radially cleaving embryos. In fact, they assume the most thermodynamically stable packing orientation, much like that of adjacent soap bubbles. Third, spirally cleaving embryos usually undergo fewer divisions before they begin gastrulation, making it possible to follow the fate of each cell of the blastula."
also consider that snails have no gender for a given individual (any given snail has both sets of reproductive organs) and all can lay eggs after mating. Courting mates is all by touch and sliming each other.* ]
We couldn't maintain a habitat with hundreds of snails. As the cleaner, my task deepened. First, we all had to come to grips with parting ways. My wife and I moved quickly knowing that attachment grows quicker than even a snail - once a name comes to mind a bond forms. I announced the plan immediately. I was to release the snails into the pseudo-wild of the protected marshes here in Marina Del Rey and let nature play its games. We would retain two babies.
"Pumpkin, is that one's name."
And a child was born.
I prepared mentally and physically arming myself with paper towels, cups of water, and a small spoon. The spoon would be the official vehicle of snail freedom. Marching in the bright, winter sun I noticed people and their dogs and their kids. I noticed leaves and cars and a trace of clouds. I noticed the smell of streets and the line of ants. I spotted an opening in the fence in which to escape and release my prisoners.
The ground considerably drier than the lush soil of the habitat seemed a downgrade as far as conditions go. Ants overran the bristling leaves and dusty dirt, busy with their nation building. Would these ants attack these refugees? Would the ants' changing paths signal predators I could not see? How many ants and snails and microbes did I squish underfoot en route? how many strategies did I unlock in these efforts? what contingent responses unfurled upon my shoes and my skin? did the parents of all these babies sense anything with their slime disconnecting with every spoonful I poured onto the earth?
I covered the emptied soil with the found natural debris. It was gravelike - a mound, but concealed. An opportunity to commune while disappearing into a different world. Disruptive but giving.
When I glared up at the sun from that life-giving graveyard it struck me that reverence, even in glossy cliche, is a life-affirming. The world is contingent, full of competing strategies for survival, full of sacrifice and contradicting stances of individualism and society of creation and destruction - and all gradients in between. No species lives in isolation, no individual of a species lives independent of the backs of others, no species is above or below. I could not avoid the destruction of all the snails babies nor the hundreds of insects and other organisms I probably killed on my cliche ritual of setting pets free. But I can live in reverence of their being, humbled by their place in this world, and my shared place. It is my responsibility to honor them. This story honors the lovely, little snails and their ability to turn celery into spiraled shells.